Gardeners often mistake spring and summer for the best time to plant fruit trees. But, deciduous fruit trees are often better purchased and planted during the winter months when they lie dormant. Part of the reason this is true is because the fruit tree doesn’t go through as much shock when being planted. It is not actively growing therefore the growth is not being disturbed. Also, nurseries often have a better selection and broad range of varieties that you may have thought never existed. The trees range in age but most are between 2-3 years old. That fruit tree that you buy in a pot in spring and summer is sometimes the same tree you could have purchased for half the price in winter because wholesale nurseries will often plant them in pots to sell them for a higher price later on.
There are a few things I look at when selecting a tree. First is the graft, often they are not completely callused over but there shouldn’t be any space between the rootstock and the grafted variety. Second, make sure there are no gashes, stripped bark, or oozing sap. Oozing sap is usually a sign that a canker is developing which can result in the whole tree dying. I see cankers mostly in apricots, plums, peaches and nectarines. Nurseries check for cankers but sometimes a few will be missed. If you’re looking to grow a smaller tree, try to select one with lower branches. Sometimes, this isn’t possible and the tree will have to be cutback without any branches being underneath the cut. Don’t worry, those dormant buds should break underneath the cut and you can select your main branches from the shoots that appear.
Many people have small backyards and want smaller trees so they can have a range of fruit. Often, I get asked at the nursery for miniature or dwarf trees. From my experience, the root system is sometimes dwarfed as well, the tree is a little more finicky (resulting in dropped fruit) and the quality isn’t always there. I would much rather keep a semi-dwarf smaller by pruning and making a low initial cut when planting. Farmers sometimes use the knee rule, which means cutting the tree down to knee level. This can be done with smaller diameter trees but with larger diameter trees, I would make the cut higher than knee high.
Another option to have more varieties in a smaller area is to select multi-graft fruit trees. These trees are grafted with sometimes up six different varieties. One fruit tree that is commonly referred to as ‘stone fruit salad’ contains a peach, nectarine, plum, and apricot all on one tree while others will contain 4 varieties of one type of fruit. You can also try planting multiple trees on three-foot centers. This would look like a triangle when planted, one tree on each corner of the triangle.
Make sure you’re selecting fruit varieties that will do well in your area. Ask a nursery person if you’re confused about what ones will perform best in your location. Keep an eye out for chill hours; chill hours are the amount of hours below 45 degrees needed for optimal production. There are maps and charts online (here is one by UC Davis) that will give you an idea for how many chill hours you get in your area. If you’re in a low-lying area, you may get more chill hours than your neighbor who is up on a ridge. The chill hours don’t necessarily need to be reached to produce fruit but you will get much better production if the chill hour requirement is met.
Last but not least, when planting a bareroot tree, it is better to error on planting the tree too high than too low. The tree will naturally pull itself down by a process called centrifugal force. If the centrifugal force is not enough, you can always add soil to cover the visible roots. Where as, if you plant a tree too low, you will make the tree vulnerable too crown rot and it will need to be completely excavated, often resulting in damaging the root system.
After the tree is planted, side dress with a good amount of rich compost. Do this several times during the year as the compost breaks down. In addition to adding compost, you can put a nice layer of different size wood chips to help conserve moisture and provide a slow release of nutrients to the tree.
Remember, as long as you follow a few rules, shopping for fruit trees in the winter will save you money, you’ll have a bigger selection to choose from, and the trees will be happier in the long run. Happy New Year everyone!